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Artisans of Michigan: Windsor chairs

Sep 9, 2016

Sampson, Luke Barnett's dog, resting in front of a Barnett Windsor Chairs creation.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

We’ve been visiting craftsmen and women around Michigan for our series “Artisans of Michigan.” Today we visit Adrian, Michigan.

“I’m making some Windsor Chairs. Right now, I’m fitting the legs into the seat,” Luke Barnett explained. He is the owner of Barnett Windsor Chairs.

The spindles and legs are kiln dried before they’re inserted into holes in the seat. Small wedges are driven into the ends to make the fit tighter. The wood eventually swells with the humidity, making it an even more secure fit. Barnett says he does use some glue, but it’s really not necessary.

Barnett makes these chairs almost completely by hand. Most of the forming is done by draw knives and other hand tools.

“And they’ve been doing it like this since 1750 and I’m just trying to carry on that tradition.”

Barnett’s wood shop is in the Adrian Center for the Arts, a wooded campus with shops of all kinds of artists. It’s fitting that the shop is surrounded by trees because these Windsor Chairs are made out of three different kinds of wood found in Michigan.

“The legs are made out of Sugar Maple. It takes very, very fine details on the lathe,” Barnett explained.  He’s says using Sugar Maple is especially nice for him because Adrian is Michigan’s “Maple City.”

The second wood used is the Eastern White Pine, the state tree of Michigan.

“It’s soft, it’s very stable when it’s dried,” Barnett said, adding that it’s the perfect wood for the seat of the chair.

Luke Barnett shaping the seat of his next chair.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The third wood used is White Oak. He uses steam to bend the oak for the back of the chair, but the really nice part is how flexible White Oak is as a spindle. Barnett says it gives, making sitting in the chair very comfortable.

Barnett makes rocking chairs, arm chairs, dining room chairs, even some Windsor style stools.

Barnett says he loves being in the shop. While some people take up woodworking as a hobby when they retire, he gets to do it for a living in his early 30s. It all started when he was about 12 years old, helping his grandmother restore rundown Victorian era houses. His skills progressed over the years and he began making furniture and finally making the Windsor chairs. He says while the chairs can be complex, all he sees is the simplicity of the woodworking.

As part of this community of artists, Barnett also holds classes for the public. He teaches the basics of carving wood or woodworking with hand tools.

But most of the time he’s by himself making chairs.

“I kind of enjoy being by myself. That’s when I get my best work done. I always have,” Barnett said.

He’s never completely alone. His dog, Sampson, is always nearby.

Luke Barnett of Barnett Windsor Chairs, the latest in our series: Artisans of Michigan.

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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